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News from Mathnasium of Columbus Bradley Park

Why Americans are bad at math

Feb 24, 2020

This article from QZ and is still linked back to that website.

It’s no secret that Americans aren’t exactly leading the pack in mathematics.

Out of the profusion of statistics that support this fact, the most telling may be that math performance by American high school graduates is roughly the same as most high school dropouts in other countries.

My newest study in the journal Science Advances uncovers another possible reason for what Quartz has called America’s “ spectacularly bad” arithmetic skills: It’s math anxiety.


While researchers have proposed a link between math anxiety and math avoidance in the past—in which a vicious cycle of anxiety about math leads to poor performance when solving equations, which in turn causes even more math anxiety—no one to my knowledge has conducted an experiment in which they have empirically shown that people who are anxious about math overwhelmingly tend to avoid it—more so than other disciplines, and even when they actually do possess the ability and knowledge to solve math problems.

The math test

What we discovered was that people who had previously reported they felt afraid or nervous about math (those with the most math anxiety) wouldn’t attempt to solve hard math problems even when they knew they could score a larger amount of reward money for a correct answer and even when they had the math skills (based on actual math performance throughout the experiment) to solve the difficult problems. People with less math anxiety, on the other hand, jumped in and tackled the difficult math.

Our conclusion: When you have high levels of math anxiety, you avoid math at all costs, and you perform poorly on tests.


And just like arachnophobia, claustrophobia, or aviophobia, Americans have dubbed an entire category devoted to this condition: “ math trauma,” caused by a personal history of embarrassment and humiliation experienced during math class.

The results of my study are especially concerning when you consider the fact that not only does the US lag well behind other countries on standardized math test performance, but Americans’ math test results have in fact gotten worse over time.

American losers

Every three years, students around the world sit for the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, exam, which evaluates countries’ student skill levels in math, reading, and science. Historically, US students have done especially poorly in the math category, ranking number 28 in 2012 and number 35 in 2015. The results of the latest PISA released on  Dec. 3, 2019  showed negligible improvement for American students, who ranked 35th place out of the 79 participating countries.


Employment in STEM occupations has grown 79% since 1990, increasing from 9.7 million to 17.3 million jobs. So, why aren’t more people focusing their energy on understanding why we as a nation are so bad at math?

Numbers psyche

Better understanding the clear link between math anxiety and math avoidance has potentially enormous benefits, as math anxiety affects not only what classes students select, but the majors they choose, and, therefore, the careers they pursue. Approximately 93% of Americans report experiencing some level of math anxiety and it’s estimated that nearly one in five US adults—17%—suffers from high levels of math anxiety. A 2016 study found that 11% of university students exhibited “high enough levels of mathematics anxiety to be in need of counseling.”

Math inequality

As with most cultural or socioeconomic phenomena, math anxiety also does not affect all groups equally. Research consistently shows that girls and women experience more math anxiety and are less confident in their math skills than boys and men are. Studies on math performance across the US education system also indicate persistent—and widening—achievement gaps between white and minority students. This skills disparity is especially dire for black, Latinx, and indigenous students.

Now that math anxiety has been identified as a root cause of our growing math crisis, it’s time to take action to address it.

If we don’t, we’re simply giving into fear. Science has proven that feelings are powerful, albeit categorically elusive, indicators of how we function and advance in societies. If we don’t fix our feelings toward math, how can we ensure the next generation recognizes their full potential in rewarding STEM careers?

As a country, we have a complex, advanced-stage math problem on our hands, and we better find a way to solve it.